“I know I really should walk my dog more, but…”
is a common statement uttered by many a dog training client. People always have the best intentions for their dogs but the days are long and over-stimulation on leash is embarrassing and dangerous. Clients are frequently surprised, and hopefully relieved, when they learn that a walk may not be the best option for their dog. If walking the dog feels like a chore, how much enjoyment can one really get out of it and if it’s not fun, then what’s the point?
Walks aren’t suited for All Dogs
Taking a slow walk in a straight line tethered to a human may very well be one of the most unnatural and frustrating experiences for a dog. Leash walks may be especially ill-suited for short-nosed breeds due to their difficulty breathing and regulating their body temperature. Here in the Midwest taking a walk with the dog can be a particular challenge when the weather varies as much in 24 hours as it does between seasons. Holding fast to belief that walking you dog is the best way to exercise them could be limiting the Human-Canine bond from developing in other ways and setting your dogs up for habitually poor behavior.
The average walk for most dogs get is maybe 30 minutes long. Hardly enough time to warm up, let alone enough time for productive energy burn. For fearful or reactive dogs this short foray into the (sub)urban wilderness is just enough time to ramp up anxiety or excitement without suitably tiring the dog or teaching him anything practical. If your dog’s walk is anything like what many of my client’s dogs experience then that 30 minutes is spent being choked, hurried, harassed, frustrated, or terrified. Out of their own frustration many pet owners sometimes resort to choke chains or prong collars to give them the illusion of control without actually addressing the root of the dogs poor behavior.
Consider that a walk is a minimally physical exercise that generally requires little mental effort. Though physical exercise is certainly valuable, mental exercise is just as valuable and maybe even more important. Thinking and problem solving builds confidence. ‘Hunting’ requires memory, forethought, troubleshooting, and other complex behaviors and skills. Your dog was designed to procure sustenance but generally has little opportunity to utilize these intrinsic drives in his current environment. Because your dog’s hours of the day are not spent foraging for food, shelter, or a mate, he often relies on other inappropriate manners to burn his pent up energy.
Simple Alternatives to Taking Your Dog For A Walk
So what can you do instead? First and foremost, whatever it is, make it fun. We tend to do more of the things that are fun so make sure that whatever you’re doing for exercise and mental stimulation in mutually enjoyable to both parties. One great alternative to a walk is a rousing game called ‘Catch Me if You Can.’ By running away from your dog, especially with a treat or favored toy you are making yourself a moving target and infinitely more appealing than when you’re holding your dog back from something he wants.
‘Hide and Seek’ is a second great option. In both games the dog is pursuing you. Both are great ways to get your heart rates pumping. Both games also provide ample opportunities to practice good discipline and manners. Reward your dog for sitting when he finds or catches you and remember that rewards don’t always have to involve food. A rousing game of tug can be a exceptional reward for finding you as well as an additional way to burn more calories.
A third activity for replacing walks is Scent Work, which provides great physical and mental exercise. Find a small shipping box and hide some food in it then let your dog ‘search’ for it. Hide the box in progressively harder to find places. You can use multiple boxes for added difficultly but be sure to use the same box for food each time so there’s no confusion. Then enjoy watching your dog use his sniffer and street smarts to find his way to the payday. When he gets good at finding the food amidst multiple boxes you can replace the food with a particular scent. Essential oils like Bergamot, Vetiver, and Lavender are great for this application. When he identifies the box with the correct scent you can reward him with a treat or favorite toy.
Check out this video of Shadow working on his ‘Search’ skills:
Basic obedience, tricks, or DIY agility courses in the house is your fourth productive way to break a sweat without taking a walk. These activities all require the foundation skills necessary for good behavior so you can get your dog lots of practice in a low distraction environment. This way he’ll keep his skills fresh and know what’s expected when the weather warms up and it’s time to venture out doors again. Shaping, capturing, and mastering the clicker are all great skills to refine for owner whether or not outdoor excursions are an option. Even working on low-stress nail trims and other husbandry skills are great replacements for loose-leash walking.
Intent on mastering that loose-leash walk? Your Fifth alternative to avoiding long walk through the neighborhood simply includes mastering short distances like up and down stairs or from your front door to the car. Practice your walk the most in the places where you tend to rush and toss the rules out the window. Without good discipline and structure each step forward and each transition between environments has the potential to contribute to further over arousal. For example, if your dog loses him mind at the sight of the leash, simply pick up the leash and set it down again. Do that as many times as it takes until he realizes that what he’s doing isn’t working. When he sits then you can ‘attempt’ to leash him. Use this opportunity to let him burn his energy before you even leave the house and the walk will be even easier. Your shoulders will thank you for it!